The history of art is also a story of matter. Paintings and sculptures are fashioned out of physical materials, so it is only natural that the artist has to be adept at handling different kinds of mediums. The medium is usually chosen from an array of raw materials at hand, and is zeroed in on after a series of artistic experiments in the studio. Personal preferences, artistic styles and the limitations of existing mediums spur new experiments. Very often, accidental discoveries lead to the evolution of completely new visual styles.
Artists today have access to a wide variety of materials. Aspiring painters can take from a mind-boggling array of paints — in myriad hues, tints and brands, so too brushes, paper and canvas. But this was not always so. Even a few hundred years ago, artists had to make their paints and brushes. While this may appear to be an inconvenience today, a brief look at the past convinces us that making their own materials not only empowered the artists, but also spurred innovation.
Imagine this. You are travelling in the countryside and are struck by the colour of the earth. Perhaps it is dark chocolate brown, particularly lush and textured. Or may be it is red earth, which turns a shade darker in the rain. A painter might want to use these hues creatively, or reproduce exactly these tones in a landscape painting. In an inspired moment, the artist might decide to use the same earth to reproduce its colour on paper. So he/she will collect the pebbles and stones, and grind them in a mortar and pestle to yield a coarse powder. The powder is then placed between two slabs of stone and ground by moving one slab over another in a circular motion. Water is sprinkled on the powder so that it keeps moving while staying cool. In the end, one is left with a fine powder exactly the colour of the stone from which it was ground.
Will this powder stick to a paper if applied directly? Should it be dissolved in water and applied with a brush? The answer is a firm ‘no’. Early artists and experimenters dabbling with pigments would have faced this dilemma. The solution is a third material, one that must have a special property. Its molecules must bind both the pigment molecules as well as molecules on the painting surface — be it paper, canvas, rock, cement or lime mortar. Artists without much knowledge of chemistry but ample determination, took intuitive cracks at the problem. Perhaps a substance that sticks to the canvas will also bind the pigment.
What about glue?
Different methods were developed based on this essential insight. The Egyptians mixed pigments with molten wax and painted on wood. Others used plant resins to bind the pigment molecules to themselves and to the support surface.
In many cultures, egg yolk was used as a binder. This method of painting produced pigments that would dry quickly and stick to a wide range of surfaces. Tempera painting, as it came to be known, was an extraordinarily popular method that adorned everything from books to murals inside grottos.
A limitation of the water-soluble binder- based methods is that they set quickly. Once the water-based paints dry to the touch — usually within minutes — it becomes difficult to correct errors. The solution to the problem was perfected and popularised by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck in the 15th century. When a pigment is mixed with a drying oil and then ground to a fine paste on a slab of granite or glass, one is left with a rich fluid paste, the consistency and transparency of which can be altered by adding oil. More oil would mean longer drying time. Layers of oil paint would take days, often weeks, to dry. This gave the artist the time to make corrections and reworkings on a painting, which, sometimes, stretched over months, at times even years, but ended up producing a highly refined piece of art.
Jan van Eyck’s experiments with the alchemy of paint allowed him to create an entirely new technique of making oil paints, and led to virtuoso paintings such as the ‘Madonna with Chancellor Rolin’. His methods became hugely influential across Europe, and were adopted by painters across the continent, making it the de facto standard for centuries.
Before the arrival of industrial manufacturing, every studio would experiment with their own materials. The unique materials are a reason, apart from consummate skill and effort, that the old masters’ paintings have their own signature. While thousands of store-bought paints will all give the same colour, making one’s own paint not only lends the product a unique character, but also sets off new ways of making them.
If one has to make paint at home, there are simple tips to follow. Take a pigment and mix it with an easily available gluey substance — say cornstarch or gum arabic or acacia gum (sap of babul). Let it dry in a pan, and there you have it, home-made watercolour.
Meanwhile, progress in paint technology steadfastly continues with the development of acrylic paints, in which the binder is a plastic resin. There are also the newly-invented high-tech oil paints that can dissolve in water as well as oil. So, go forth and make some paint.
Santanu Chakraborty is a Bengaluru-based engineer, scientist and photographer